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Saudi player’s public haircut spotlights kingdom’s existential dilemmas

By James M. Dorsey

Waleed Abdullah probably didn’t know what was happening to him when a referee delayed kick-off of a Saudi premier league match to cut the Al Shabab FC goalkeeper’s hair. In a country that demands conformity, Mr. Abdullah’s hair-do, involving shaved parts of his hair in a style popular among youths across the globe, was deemed un-Islamic and by implication subversive – a threat that needed to be dealt with immediately and demonstratively.

The public humiliation of Mr. Abdullah not only evoked the disgracing of players who failed to live up to autocratic expectations in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya but also resembled enforcement of strict dress codes by the Islamic State, the jihadist group from which Saudi Arabia seeks to differentiate itself.

Al Shabab was only allowed to play after fans, players and officials watched the referee use scissors to remove a small mohawk at the front of Mr. Abdullah’s head.

Mr. Abdullah was the first Saudi player to become the victim of a decision earlier this month by the Saudi Arabian Football Association to ban the hairstyle popular among players in the kingdom. The association said the hair-do violated a saying of the Prophet Mohammed that bans Al-Qaza, the shaving of one part of one’s hair while leaving others unshaven.

The ban could mean that that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the biggest names in global soccer, and others could have their heads shaven if they were to visit Saudi Arabia for a match.

Mr. Abdullah’s shaving sparked ridicule and anger among Saudi fans who noted that the kingdom had bigger fish to fry, including changes to its social contract as a result of financial austerity, budget deficits because of tumbling oil prices, a stalled war in Yemen, proxy wars with Iran in Syria and elsewhere, and uncertainty about its relationship with the United States, the Gulf’s main protector,

“Water bills are unbelievably expensive, government employment has halted, real estate and financial loans have stopped, and the government meets to talk about banning Al-Qaza,” said a critic on Twitter.

“There are stalled projects in Riyadh, financial crises, and rampant and obvious corruption – and caring for the young people is going after their hair?” the criic added

Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit ballooned to 15 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GPD) last year. The government is this year expected to tap international debt markets as it burns through its currency reserves at a record pace. To plug the gap, the government has cut subsidies on basics like fuel, electricity and water.

Those austerity measures alter the kingdom’s social contract under which the citizenry enjoyed cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for surrender of political rights and acceptance of Saudi Arabia’s strict and puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Many Saudis were furious when they last month received their first unsubsidized water bills involving hikes of up to 3,000 percent. "Have they changed the type of water they pump to people?

Or have they added vitamins? My bill has jumped from $8 to $265!" former football star Faisal Abu Thnain tweeted.

Water and Electricity Minister Abdallah al-Hussein did little to calm emotions when he suggested that water bills following the subsidy cut were still less than half of what an average family spends on mobile telephony.

Saudi Arabia could run out of groundwater in the next 13 years with daily per capita consumption of water in Saudi Arabia averaging 380 litres per day compared to a global average of 160 to 180 litres.

Pricing water at market value to encourage conservation constitutes sound policy. However, for the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family, the problem is that there is ultimately likely to be a cost to the government’s unilateral rewriting of the social contract, which is one reason why haircuts suddenly pose a potential threat. That is particularly true for Saudi soccer players who alongside Islamic scholars and some Al Sauds are the kingdom’s only celebrities.

While a recent poll concluded that a majority of Arab, including Saudi youth, believed that at this point the Middle East and North Africa needed stability rather than democracy, it also showed that a majority wanted more personal freedom and greater respect for human rights.

Source: Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth / 8th Annual Asda’a Burson-Marstellar Annual Arab Youth Survey

Source: Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth / 8th Annual Asda’a Burson-Marstellar Annual Arab Youth Survey

Equally problematic for the Al Sauds, many of whom may empathize with views among the youth but see the ruling family’s long-standing alliance with the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi clergy as crucial to its survival, is the survey’s conclusion that Arab and Saudi youth perceive as an entitlement the very things the government is eliminating from the social contract.

Source: Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth / 8th Annual Asda’a Burson-Marstellar Annual Arab Youth Survey

A Chatham House workshop on the social contract in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, noted that “the younger generation of Gulf nationals may not be able to rely on the state to provide them with jobs, services such as free education and free healthcare or heavily subsidized fuel and water. Unlike their parents – but like their grandparents – they will have to pay taxes; and this development will inevitably change the way younger citizens relate to and engage with their governments.”

For now, regional instability works in the Al Saud’s favour as it dampens the willingness of Arab and Saudi youth to risk demands for full freedom and persuades them to not fundamentally rock the boat. However, as economic change takes hold, “future generations (may) not (be) feeling politically beholden to their governments and ruling families in the way their parents and grandparents might have done,” the Chatham House workshop cautioned.

Mr. Abdullah’s Mohawk had to go because it wittingly or unwittingly challenged the Al Saud’s social and political control at a time of flux. In publicly humiliating Mr. Abdullah, the Saudi soccer association moreover made a mockery of international sports’ insistence that sports and politics are separate by seeking to close the door, albeit at best temporarily, on the kind of individuality that comes with inevitable social and political change.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.

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